SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act: New developments and Evolution

SC has delivered a judgment in a recent appeal filed by a person booked under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for allegedly abusing a Dalit woman in her house.

SC judgment on SC/ST (PoA)act

In this latest judgment related to the SC/ST Act, the Supreme Court has said:  

  • All types of intimidations or insults to persons belonging to Dalit or tribal communities will not be categorized as an offense under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
  • Only insults specifically intended to humiliate the victim for his caste should be tried under the SC/ST act.

What was the case?

  • Judgment was delivered in response to the hearing of an appeal filed by a person, booked under the Act for allegedly abusing a Dalit woman in her house.
  • The court found that allegations against persons do not fulfill the basic ingredient under the Act that such humiliation should have happened in public view.
  • Since the incident occurred within four walls in the absence of the public, he can be tried under ordinary criminal law but not under the SC/ST act.

Evolution of SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989

Constitutional Provisions

Article 17 of the constitution abolished the practice of untouchability. In line with the constitutional provisions under article 17 and Articles 14, 15 , the untouchability (offenses) Act, 1955 was passed in parliament. In 1976, the act was renamed as protection of the civil rights act.

But due to the ineffectiveness of previous acts, ‘Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989’ was enacted.

SC/ST Act, 1989

Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, also known as the SC/ST Act, was enacted to protect the marginalized communities against discrimination and atrocities.

  • The Act lists various offenses relating to various patterns or behaviors inflicting criminal offenses and breaking the self-respect and esteem of the scheduled castes and tribes community, which includes denial of economic, democratic, and social rights, discrimination, exploitation, and abuse of the legal process.
  • Under section 18 of the act, provision for anticipatory bail is not available to the offenders.
  • Any public servant, who deliberately neglects his duties under this act, is liable to punishment with imprisonment for up to 6 months.

SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities (Amendment) Act, 2015

Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015 was introduced to make the act more stringent with the following provisions:

  • It recognized more instances of “atrocities” as crimes against SCs and STs.
  • It provided for the establishment of exclusive special courts and special public prosecutors to try offenses under the PoA Act.
  • Act defined the term ‘wilful negligence’ in the context of public servants at all levels, starting from the registration of the complaint to dereliction of duty under this Act.
  • If the accused was acquainted with the victim or his family, the court will presume that the accused was aware of the caste or tribal identity of the victim unless proved otherwise.

2018 SC judgment

Supreme Court in its Kashinath Mahajan judgment, introduced the following safeguards to the accused under SC/ST act.

Key guidelines

  • The bar on anticipatory bail under the Act need not prevent courts from granting advance bail if there is no merit in a complaint
  • “Preliminary enquiry” to be conducted in all cases before registration of FIRs.
  • The person can be arrested by an investigating officer, only if the “appointing authority” (in the case of a public servant) or the SP (in the case of others) approves such arrest. 

2018 amendment to the Act

In 2018, in response to this dilution of the act and public uproar against it, Parliament introduced Section 18A to overturn safeguards introduced by the Supreme Court.

  • Preliminary inquiry shall not be required for registration of a First Information Report against any person.
  • No approval is required before the arrest of the accused under this act.
  • It rules out any provision (Section 438 of the CrPC that deals with anticipatory bail) for anticipatory bail for the accused.

Prathvi Raj Chauhan case, 2020

In this case, the constitutional validity of section 18-A of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2018 was challenged.

  • In this case, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India has upheld the Constitutional validity of section 18-A.
  • pre-arrest bail should be granted only in extraordinary situations where a denial of bail would mean a miscarriage of justice
  • Anticipatory bail can only be given in exceptional cases by Courts and not in every case.

How effective has been SC/ST act?

Following are some of the figures that raise questions over the effectiveness of the SC/ST PoA Act:

  • Increase in crimes: As per the NCRB report, 2019, Crimes against members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes communities increased by 7.3% and 26.5% respectively in 2019.
  • State-wise: Uttar Pradesh has the most number of cases of crime against SCs – 11,829 cases, which is 25.8% of the total such cases in the country followed by Rajasthan with 6,794 cases (14.8% of all cases), Bihar (14.2%), and Madhya Pradesh (11.5%).
  • Conviction rate: According to a status report on the implementation of the PoA Act, released by the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ), over the decade prior to 2018, the average conviction rate under(Prevention of Atrocities) Act
     for cases of atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis remained at 25.2% and 22.8% respectively.

What more should be done?

  • Registration of Cases: Standard Operating Procedure (SoP) should be developed for filing and investigating cases so that there is no confusion or doubt among the investigators about the procedure to be followed.
  • Training and Capacity building of judges, lawyers, and policemen is required in these types of cases
  • Prosecution: Successful prosecution of genuine cases by the lawyers must be rewarded.
  • Research: There is a requirement for research into the types of punishment, as an alternative to imprisonment that can prevent future crimes by individuals or communities.

Way forward

As signified in the figures above, Laws alone cannot realize the vision of our constitution-makers to make India a country where everyone has equal rights, opportunities, and access to justice, it is only one of the steps required.

It requires the educational and economic advancement of the backward communities like SCs and STs in India and educational reforms all over the country so that root cause of the discrimination can be dealt with.


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